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The Schmalkaldic League (1530/1 - 1547)
Part 1: Introduction and Creation

 More of this Feature
• 2: The Rise of the League
• 3: Fall and Defeat
• 4: Timeline
 Elsewhere On The Web
• Martin Luther
• Melanchthon
• The Catholic Perspective
The Reformation further divided a Europe already fragmented by cultural, economic and political differences. In the Holy Roman Empire, which covered much of central Europe, the newly Lutheran princes clashed with their Emperor: he was the secular head of the Catholic church and they were part of a heresy. These tensions produced the Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of Lutheran princes and cities that pledged to protect each other from any religiously motivated attack; it lasted for sixteen years.

The League's Creation

In the mid 1500's the Holy Roman Empire was a piecemeal grouping of over 300 territories, which varied from large dukedoms to single cities; although largely independent, they all owed some form of loyalty to the Emperor. After Luther ignited a massive religious debate in 1517, via the publication of his 95 Theses, many German territories adopted his ideas and converted away from the existing Catholic Church. However, the Empire was an intrinsically Catholic institution, and the Emperor was the secular head of a Catholic Church that now regarded Luther's ideas as heresy. In 1521 Emperor Charles V pledged to remove the Lutherans (this new branch of religion was not yet called Protestantism) from his kingdom, with force if necessary.

There was no immediate armed conflict. The Lutheran territories still owed allegiance to the Emperor, even though they were implicitly opposed to his role in the Catholic Church; he was, after all, the head of their empire. Likewise, although the Emperor was opposed to the Lutherans, he was hamstrung without them: the Empire had powerful resources, but these were split amongst hundreds of states. Throughout the 1520's Charles needed their support - militarily, politically and economically - and he was thus prevented from acting against them. Consequently, Lutheran ideas continued to spread amongst the German territories.

In 1530 the situation changed. Charles had renewed his peace with France in 1529, temporarily driven the Ottoman forces back, and settled matters in Spain; he wanted to use this hiatus to reunite his empire, so it was ready to face any renewed Ottoman threat. Additionally, he had just returned from Rome having been crowned Emperor by the Pope, and he wanted to end the heresy. With the Catholic majority in the Diet (or Reichstag) demanding a general church council, and the Pope preferring arms, Charles was prepared to compromise. He asked the Lutherans to present their beliefs at a Diet, to be held in Augsburg.

Philip Melanchthon prepared a statement defining the basic Lutheran ideas, which had now been refined by nearly two decades of debate and discussion. This was the Confession of Augsburg, and it was delivered in June 1530. However, for many Catholics there could be no compromise with this new heresy, and they presented a rejection of the Lutheran Confession entitled The Confutation of Augsburg. Despite it being very diplomatic - Melanchthon had avoided the most contentious issues and focused on areas of probable compromise - the Confession was rejected by Charles. He instead accepted the Confutation, consented to a renewal of the Edict of Worms (which banned Luther's ideas), and gave a limited period for the 'heretics' to reconvert. The Lutheran members of the Diet left, in a mood which historians have described as both disgust and alienation.

In a direct reaction to the events of Augsburg two leading Lutheran princes, Landgrave Philip of Hesse and Elector John of Saxony, arranged a meeting at Schmalkalden, in the December of 1530. Here, in 1531, eight princes and eleven cities agreed to form a defensive league: if one member were attacked because of their religion, all the others would unite and support them. The Confession of Augsburg was to be taken as their statement of faith, and a charter drawn up. Additionally, a commitment to provide troops was established, with a substantial military burden of 10,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry being split amongst the members.

The creation of leagues was common in the early modern Holy Roman Empire, especially during the Reformation. The League of Torgau had been formed by Lutherans in 1526, to oppose the Edict of Worms, and the 1520's also saw the Leagues of Speyer, Dessau and Regensburg; the latter two were Catholic. However, the Schmalkaldic League included a large military component, and for the first time a powerful group of princes and cities appeared to be both openly defiant of the Emperor, and ready to fight him.

Next page > The Rise of the League > Page 1, 2, 3, 4

For Citation And Footnotes
Title: The Schmalkaldic League 1530/1 - 1547
Author: Robert Wilde
Date: 2001

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